It was our first time travelling downtown to attend an event. My friend and I were so confused about the directions we must have walked back and forth on the subway platform six or seven times before a stranger noticed us. He kindly asked where we were trying to go and told us exactly which station to get off at. As we got onto the train he made sure we were aware of our stop and proceeded to tell us exactly where to walk. Why did he bother to help us?

In a world driven by individualism and competition, there seems to be little explanation for why human beings still choose to help others even at the risk of their own loss. Why do we go out of our way to ensure someone else’s comfort? It is no hidden fact that humans have an innate quality of compassion, but where does this come from?

Caring in a general sense is how we care for our families and friends because we love them. Compassion is an emotional response to help, often associated with someone who is in trouble or going through hardship. This instinct exists in our biology because the survival of our communities means the survival of our species. Even animals display a certain level of compassion for babies. You’ve probably experienced a sense of relief or happiness when you offer to help someone. Even in situations where helping may seem like it is coming at a disadvantage to us, we still sometimes choose to help. A charity is looking for volunteers to help with food distribution on Saturday morning. Do you sacrifice your sleep to help them out? The answer doesn’t always have to be yes but, if you find yourself taking up these opportunities, there are deeper reasons for it.

Being compassionate has physical as well as mental benefits. Showing and receiving compassion helps us create better relations with others and this improves our mental health. A healthy mind is a healthy body and better social connections benefit the immune system, which can lower our rates of anxiety and improve self-esteem. 

Steve Cole’s study on the level of inflammation in the brain of people who described themselves as happy, showed how compassion relates to happiness. Inflammation in some cases can lead to various diseases. Generally, happiness equals less inflammation. But his study separated two types of happiness. 

Here’s what’s interesting, the people who described themselves as happy due to a life of purpose had much lower levels of inflammation than those who described themselves as happy because of their achievements. “A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It is a life rich in compassion, altruism, and greater meaning.” Although we all experience some degree of stress in our lives, those who show more compassion can experience a boost in wellbeing. So even if we don’t realize it, caring for others has benefits for us.

  1. Seppala, E. (April 2013). “The Compassionate Mind”. Association for Psychological Science.